April 25th is Liberation Day, a public holiday for Italy to celebrate the end of Nazi-Fascist oppression. Together with May 1st it’s the opportunity for many Italians to form a “ponte” or bridge and take a short break Like Italians we did the same, hence the wider area our recent posts have covered.
It’s important to realise that this country formed part of the Axis in WWII, that it became an occupied country, that it suffered a horrific civil war which cost the lives of thousands and that the archaeology of investigations into the atrocities of the period 1940-5 are still going on today.
Computers also have their archaeology, especially in their storage areas. I re-discovered the following, which I’d written around 1997, after visiting the British War cemetery just outside Florence on the road to Pontassieve near Compiobbi, while on my motorbiking tour of Tuscany on my Transalp, and which I passed by again only the other day:
In the story I’d changed the names of some geographical locations, but the narrative I related then is absolutely true
THE LAST TRUMPETER
Agroponte is a town easily missed by those travellers en route to the more seductive beauties of the upper Arno valley. Deprived of a large part of its mediaeval centre in desperate fighting during the final months of the last world war and surrounded by a circle of decaying industrial suburbs, complete with derelict cement works and rusting mills, the town does not readily invite the fine arts tourist into its womb. Yet it possesses a certain charm, occupying a dramatic position just above where the river Mambro, narrowed at this point by steeply rising gneissian slopes, noisily negotiates a virtual right angle, re-setting its course towards the gentler plains of Arezzo’s region.
I had parked my V-twin motorcycle on an irregularly paved street in the centre and was waking up to an early August morning in the lower Apennines drinking a cafe corretto, (that is, corrected by a drop of grappa or eau-de-vie at a pavement bar.) En route to the higher evergreen-clad slopes of the main range of hills, I was keen to escape the suffocating heat of an Italian mid-summer noon and the even worse prospect of culture pilgrims’ coach-loads zombying into the Arabian temperatures of Florence’s renaissance squares.
True, the town of Agroponte was not wildly appealing but it had a lively atmosphere, and the farmers’ vans coming with their zucchini and aubergines into the main market square enhanced the tight-knit sociability of a provincial centre. The natives appeared most friendly towards me.
After digesting a delicious egg and cream pastry I returned to my means of transport and revved up the motor into a gentle feline purr. I began biking towards the main road, passing through a town gate with one tower remaining, just noticing by the side of my eyes a magnificent old bridge leaping over the tributary feeding into the Mambro, which because of its venerable age and uncertain structural condition, was now ignominiously consigned to pedestrian use only.
The narrow highway soon led past vine-drooped stone walls and modest houses festooned with vividly crimson geraniums. The traffic was still light and I could hear the rush of the river through the secure padding of my crash helmet.
I increased the throttle. The machine was performing well. The road was clear ahead. My body felt revived.
Suddenly, I noticed an almost English-green expanse of lawn ahead, on the right between the road and the river. Seeing the emerald grass bespeckled by little white stones I realised it was a war cemetery.
For four months after the liberation of Florence the Eighth army had made little progress through the wild northern Apennines into the industrial heartland of the Po Valley. This was partly because it had been starved of resources and ammunition now dedicated to the D-day engendered thrust through France (it had even called itself the “Forgotten army”), partly, too, because of the Fuhrer’s orders to his largely schoolboy troops to “fight to the last man and never surrender”. Consequently, more men fell in action during those last few frantic months than in the rest of the campaign put together. I decided to stop for a visit, more out of feelings of homesickness for an English-looking turf, so welcome after all those scrubby brown-dried collection of lawns Italians in summer still insist in calling municipal parks.
The cemetery was quite small and immaculately kept. Between each simple War office regulation headstone, plainly marked with the name, age and rank of the fallen soldier, was planted an enchantingly perfumed miniature rose bush. I was stunned by how young some of them were when they fell. Elegantly topiaried hedges surrounded the expanse, in the centre of which rose a cross, which would not have been out of place in a Home Counties Parish churchyard, to the memory of those dead soldiers who had no grave and no name.
After reading some entries calligrafied in the Book of Remembrance kept in a little brick cupolaed gazebo I sat down on a wooden bench and somewhat irreverently began rolling a cigarette. As I watched the clouds of liquorice-paper perfumed smoke ascend into the air like an oblation to Arcadian Gods I was startled by the sudden appearance of an immaculately pin-stripe suited man, hatted with a well-dimpled Homburg, and carrying a brilliantly polished attaché case under his left arm, striding confidently towards the central memorial cross area.
He seemed so self-possessed and intent on his progress towards the cemetery’s axis that I had no wish to interrupt him, not even to wish “Buongiorno”. I tried, instead, to remain unnoticed on my bench near the manicured hedge. Clearly, this medium-built late-middle-aged man with a neatly cut greying moustache was not the cemetery’s gardener. He was much too smartly dressed for that. His couturiered appearance also seemed inappropriate for any administrative role in the cemetery unless it were at some official function? Who was he and what was he doing here?
I looked at him all the way down the gravelled path to the central area and was glad that he still had not noticed my presence. The man then halted before the octagonal Carrara marble pedestal and briefly stood still, as if in contemplation.
And then he unzipped his briefcase and took from it a silver trumpet, raised it to his lips and started playing in limpid and incisive tones. It was an aria from Verdi’s Don Carlos, Act three, where the Count contemplates retiring to a monastery.
I heard in silence, seduced by the clear argentine tones of the valved instrument intoning against a rushing background of the river fast flowing over the rapids and the buzzing of an occasional scooter passing by.
Other numbers followed: a sentimental Neapolitan ballad, a military march with a very jaunty polonaise-like rhythm and, wonder of wonders, the exiles’ chorus from Nabucco. The unknown trumpeter and the instrument merged into one, audience and orchestra, action and landscape, coalescing into the rising heat of the day, the obfuscating sky, and the lambent sunlight.
Then the solo concert stopped as suddenly as it had started. With equal precision the trumpeter replaced his instrument in his briefcase, and turned away from the cross to return.
As he began to walk towards the entrance I plucked up the courage to come out of my secretive arbour and approach the trumpeter.
“Good morning” I announced.
“Good morning to you,” he replied, without an eyelid of surprise, as if he had been expecting me all this time. “Are you a forestiero? Welcome to Agroponte. Perhaps you are English? Ah the great British Empire! Where has it gone?”
He said this with an infectious smile and without a hint of malice.
“Why yes, I am British.” I confirmed
“And which town in England were you born?”
“London, Lewisham SE13 to be exact.”
“London. Ah London, what a great city. My cousin has lived there and he has told me all about it: the fog and the Houses of Parliament, Her Majesty and the cricket. You know, your country has taught us democracy, and taught Mussolini!”
We walked in silence for awhile. The gravel crunched dryly under our feet.
“What a fine place to play the trumpet; it’s so peaceful here, so quiet” I commented. “Is that why you have chosen this place?”
“Partly, yes; I do not disturb the neighbours, that is true. But I really come here to play to the soldiers.”
“To play to the soldiers?” I tried not to sound too surprised.
“Yes, to play to the soldiers.”
“That’s fine, that’s a really fine thing to do.” I said, trying, in my mind to justify his action. “And how often do you come here to play?”
“I try to come here to play every morning around 10 o’clock. But, unfortunately, it is not always possible and the soldiers have to do without me. You know how it is: there are commissions to do in the town, then there’s shopping with the wife, and sometimes I catch a cold and then my lungs refuse to produce enough air for the trumpet. I don’t like to give of my second best. It would be disappointing for the soldiers.”
“You play remarkably well. Was that last piece from Rigoletto?”
“Yes, bravo. It’s from Act Two, you know when the Duke tries to find where Rigoletto has hidden the daughter he is in so much love with. But, you should know I have been playing with the Agroponte Municipal Town Band for over forty years now. Not always the trumpet, mind you. I’ve had to play on the ophicleide (what an instrument!) or stand in for the Cornettist if they were indisposed or otherwise not available. After all these years I would expect to be proficient, although, sadly, that is sometimes not the case with some of my colleagues.”
The principal aim of traditional Italian town bands is to make a festive sound. They always, in my experience manage to produce the second and sometimes even succeed in the first. Clearly, with a trumpeter like this man the Agroponte Municipal band must be a cut above average.
“Do you just play to English soldiers?” I asked.
“Well,” he answered, “the Germans kicked me and many like me about very badly. It was a rough time with them around I tell you. And the Italians didn’t do so badly at kicking me. And, between you and me, the British sometimes kicked me around too. But it doesn’t matter any more now does it?”
I heard him in silence as he went on. “Of course, I like to play to the British soldiers most of all. But I do find the time to play to the Italian soldiers too and once a month, if I can, I go to the biggest war cemetery there is this side of the Apennines – the German one they were only permitted to build five years ago – and even play a little to them. But not Wagner!”
We talked a little more about the heat of the summer weather and the lack of rain, of course, and then how well I found myself in the country and how long I intended to stay. We were just about to step through the cemetery gates when I felt impelled to ask my trumpeter the question that had bugged me all the time I had been in his sight and his company.
“Do you really believe the soldiers can hear your trumpet?”
“But of course they can hear it, of course they can.”
The day was now warming up fast. With cordial promises of another meeting, perhaps an invitation to the bar for a cappuccino we parted. I ignited the V-twin and began my sinuous escape from the growing heat of the plains on the twisting B road up above the foaming river, the serenaded soldiers lying in their beautiful green and the industrious market, towards the resin-scented pine forests of the upper Emilian Apennines.